the national circus

Why Woodward’s Book Won’t Break Through

Unlikely to move the needle. Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, Bob Woodward’s White House coronavirus revelations, Bill Barr’s decision to use the federal government to defend Trump from a defamation lawsuit, and preparing for a contested election.

Just as the revelations in Jeffrey Goldberg’s reporting on Donald Trump’s insults to veterans have begun to fade from the headlines, details from Bob Woodward’s latest book on the president, including his intentional downplaying the risks of coronavirus and lies about how it is transmitted, have begun to appear. Will either of these reports have long-term impact?

And what about Michael Cohen’s tell-all memoir, which was on constant rotation on MSNBC during the brief interim between Goldberg and Woodward? And whatever happened to the Times reporter Michael Schmidt’s book of a week earlier, with its revelation that Mike Pence was put on standby alert during that murky unscheduled Trump stopover at Walter Reed? The cavalcade passes by so quickly it’s hard to gauge what long-term impact any revelations have. We hardly got to know the Fontainebleau hotel pool boy who brought down the randy architect of Trump’s Evangelical base, Jerry Falwell Jr., before we moved on.

If the voluminous press coverage of the widely distributed advance copies are to be believed, Woodward’s Rage is adding details and Trump’s own blithe recorded confirmation to a horrific story that we already knew: The president deliberately falsified and downplayed the epic severity of the pandemic. As Jennifer Szalai writes in her Didion-worthy dissection of Rage in the Times, the book’s portrait of Trump would be “immediately recognizable to anyone paying even the minimal amount of attention.” In a blow-by-blow account in April, for instance, the Times reported that “throughout January, as Mr. Trump repeatedly played down the seriousness of the virus,” both “top White House advisers” and experts in Cabinet departments and intelligence agencies were telling him the lethal facts and sounding constant alarms.

That’s why by this late date Trump’s indifference to matters of life and death has long since been baked into most voters’ verdicts on this president, including his own voters. Even as the Woodward revelations started to pour out, Trump was brazenly showcasing his immutable callousness and narcissism in public view, violating local mandates (as well as White House guidelines) on mask wearing and social distancing at a rally in North Carolina and conspicuously ignoring the devastation, pain, and suffering as fire tore through America’s most highly populated state.

National and battleground-state polling on the presidential election has remained largely stable since before either party’s conventions. One wants to believe that Woodward and Goldberg will move the needle, transforming a Biden lead that still leaves Democrats anxious into an unambiguous rout. In the immediate aftermath of Goldberg’s Atlantic piece, the White House’s panicky, all-hands-on-deck pushback suggested that the Trump campaign was worried. Even Melania Trump’s Twitter account was immediately enlisted in an overnight effort to denounce the article as fake news. But again, you have to wonder if the Atlantic’s additional anecdotes can move voters who have long since absorbed Trump’s contempt for generals, for John McCain’s wartime heroism, and for the Gold Star parents of Humayun Khan, an Army captain killed by a car bomb in Iraq.

What gives one a bit of hope about the Woodward book’s ability to sway some of the few still-persuadable voters is the recordings. Trump just couldn’t stop himself from performing for the most bold-faced name among reporters. While we can’t rule out that he may yet claim, as he did about the Access Hollywood video, that the recordings are a hoax, the sheer volume of his verbal diarrhea makes it unlikely that anyone will fall for it except his QAnon faithful. To get voters to listen to them all, Sarah Cooper may have to bring out a box set.

The DOJ’s unusual decision to intervene in E. Jean Carroll’s defamation case against Donald Trump seems like an attempt to delay the disclosure of potentially damaging evidence past Election Day (and put taxpayers on the hook for Trump’s legal defense). Will the department’s overstepping backfire?

It’s depressing enough that a man who has been accused of sexual assault and harassment by over 20 women was voted into the White House. Now we are literally being asked to pay for his defense in a case that grew out of Carroll’s plausible accusation of rape. This is just another, if especially unsavory, example of the Trump Justice Department’s pattern of overstepping under the auspices of Bill Barr, America’s shameless latter-day Roy Cohn. Barr has transformed our country’s highest law-enforcement agency into a mob kingpin’s personal legal defense squad.

This latest move may run down the clock over the next two months, which is all that’s needed to allow Trump to achieve his goal of delaying discovery, not to mention the handover of a DNA sample, in the Carroll case until after the election. This strategy, of course, is in keeping with his strenuous and equally bogus legal effort to stall the handover of his tax records. It’s also consistent with his administration’s illegal efforts to shut down and falsify intel about Russian election interference for the remainder of the campaign.

But in the Carroll instance, the added outrage of Trump sticking the taxpayers with his legal bill can’t be underestimated as a secondary motive. There’s a true cash-flow crisis in Trumpland. According to Times reporting on his reelection campaign’s squandering of its once formidable trove of cash, Trump has saddled his own donors with $1.5 million in legal bills generated in part by accusations of sexual harassment and discrimination on the campaign, and another $3.5 million-plus to fight a lawsuit by a 2016 campaign aide who accused him of an inappropriate kiss. It’s nothing if not impressive how Trump’s penchant for stiffing vendors and piling up bankruptcies has remained consistent in every chapter of his career in both the private and public sectors for nearly 50 years.

Politiciansexperts, and progressives are warning of a constitutional crisis — and the threat of outright violence — if November results in a contested election or mail-in ballots draw out the results. How should voters prepare? 

Vote as early as you can and, if you’re inclined, pray. As gamed out by the bipartisan Transition Integrity Project, “the potential for violent conflict is high,” especially if the election doesn’t have a clear-cut result on Election Night (which is likely) and/or if Trump claims victory based on partial returns (also likely) or brands a defeat a “hoax” or a “fraud” (highly likely). As we’ve learned, Trump’s base will bring assault weapons into a state capitol building to protest public-health protocols and send caravans of right-wing vigilantes into cities to take “law and order” into their own hands. Add to that Chad Wolf’s Department of Homeland Security, which is all too willing to serve as Trump’s private security force, and the likelihood that Rupert Murdoch and Mark Zuckerberg will throw gas on all the various flames.

Perhaps nothing short of a clear-cut Biden landslide on November 3 could head this off. It’s going to take much more than a constant parade of “blockbuster” anti-Trump books to get to that finish line.

Why Woodward’s Book Won’t Break Through